everything goes in your ear

While this music thing is a hobby in the strictest possible sense, I rationalize a lot of it by telling myself that I obsess over synthesizers and amps and guitars and effects pedals for the purpose of creating soundtracks. This is far more reasonable to me than imagining playing on stage and driving around the Mid-Atlantic in a van.
Every now and then I actually put this logic to use and make a soundtrack. My picture book, Everything Goes: In the Air, will be out in about three weeks and to that end I’m ramping up the publicity and teasers leading up to publication in September. I put together a video promo for the book.

In the past, most of my soundtracks have been created with various synths, either the modular or software. In this case, I use a guitar. While I have two really nice guitars and gear at the house, this soundtrack had to be done rather quickly yesterday afternoon. So I took the cheap Squier Stratocaster that I have here at the studio and plugged it in directly to Ableton Live via an audio interface. I used Ableton’s Amp and Cabinet effects to get the sound I was looking for, and added some EQ-8, compression via AD’s Rough Rider, and Uhbik A for slight reverb on a return channel. The percussion is made up of samples from a goofy little Casio keyboard I found years ago at a garage sale and sequenced in Ableton’s Impulse.

While on vacation in Maine last week, I spent a lot of time listening to Luna’s 1994 album “Bewitched,” and the influence is, to me, definitely there. I’m rather surprised that it sounds a lot like Vampire Weekend as well.


Recently I’ve been thinking about getting into Max for Live. I know enough about it to know that I’ll never explore it depths to any reasonable extent, and I know that if I do I’ll likely not get much else done. In the past year I’ve dived into modular synths as well as teaching myself about electronics, both of which are pretty endless journeys. But it’s the very fact that I’ve learned so much about electronics and audio via the modular that M4L has become even more interesting to me.
So the other night I opened up Ableton in demo mode so that I could mess with M4L. I couldn’t edit anything, as I did the 30-day demo of Max last year and therefore Max won’t open on my laptop. Kind of silly, but maybe for the best. Since I was limited in what I could do with this demo, I decided to just play with some of the M4L content. I’ve always liked Pluggo, so I found an instrument called Vocalese in the Pluggo collection.
Vocalese is a weird little thing where various vowels, consonants and plosives are selected with various notes. So in theory one should be able to hit certain notes in certain orders and make the thing talk. That seems like it would be either tedious or fun. Instead of going that direction, I hooked that into the MIDI from the M4L step-sequencer, and pressed go. Immediately my headphones were full of aliens chattering away. I recorded two sequences. One is sixteenth-notes and no real thought over what was going on. The second one I slowed down the sequencer, skipped some steps, and changed the durations. This gives the output a much more, I don’t know, realistic (?) result. I then added Ableton’s frequency shifter for effect.

Looking around the internets a bit, I found this post from Audio Cookbook, a blog I read now and then, who uses the same device with the vocoder. That sounds great as well.

I have a pretty strong feeling that Max for Live is in my near future. Damn.


For years and years I’ve lamented the lack of an organized group of electronic music nerds aficionados in Philadelphia. Basically, what I mean is, when I have an interest or a passion or a hobby, I like to hang around other people who like the same thing. I got hooked on mountain biking several years ago and in no small part the draw was this great group of guys who met every Saturday at 7am, rain or shine, hot or cold, and rode bikes. Same with music for me. I’m sometimes jealous of cities like New York and LA where it seems pretty easy to put together seminars, demonstrations, or just generally hang out and talk about this stuff.
My friend Tom, who teaches digital multimedia at The University of the Arts, and who kind of got me into electronic music in 2003, organized a group affiliated with UArts called SynthSIG (SIG = Special Interest Group). We’ve met six times now over the last eighteen months. Discussions have ranged from iPhone apps for making music to UArts’ old Moog Modular to a performance by musician Charles Cohen. We’d discussed at times seeing if we could get someone from Ableton to come in and talk about the program, or even help us set up a user’s group.
So last week I get an email from Tom that this is in fact taking place. The Ableton guys were looking to set up a group here and got in touch with Tom. The nerd in me is very happy right now.

If your’e into Live and you live within driving distance of Philadelphia, take the night off next Thursday May 6 and make your way to UArts in Center City. The info is in the image below. The link on the flyer is wrong, by the way. This is the correct Facebook link: http://groups.to/phillyableton

Here’s the info as a PDF flyer. Hang it up, give it to friends.

songs for the building of puzzles

When I make these little animated movies, I typically believe that I’ll able to simply dig into my huge folder of songs-in-the-works and various four-bar clips I’ve recorded and find something that will fit. And often that’s the case. However sometimes it’s not and i have to start something from scratch.

On Friday I recorded a little time lapse of my building a puzzle. This puzzle is one I illustrated for Mudpuppy last year. I like to put these things up on MrBiggs.com. I spent an hour or so first going through Ableton clips and song files, then through some of the stuff I’ve played around with in Numerology. Nothing really piqued my interest so I tried recording some sequenced loops using the analog modular I’ve been putting together. This should have been enough, but it just wasn’t coming together. I found myself getting wrapped up in the knob turning and sound making and not in the song making like I should have been. I couldn’t get the sound to even work until I realized that I had some settings wrong in Volta/Ableton. I was feeling rushed as the day was slipping away so I knew it was a doomed effort. After taking some time off and drawing (you know, my actual job) I fell back on what I know works. I opened up Numerology, dropped in a matrix sequencer Reaktor’s Oki Computer synth, which I know will give me some funny bleepy sounds with lots of modulation possibilities, perfect for this little movie.

Oki Computer, Reaktor
Oki Computer, Reaktor

Oki is an interesting little instrument in that it’s basically a wavetable synth and specializes in digital sounds and odd noises. I had Reaktor for a good two years before I started wrapping my head around this synthesizer, but now I can make it do what I want, more or less, and I have quite a few of my own presets that I use as starting points. Along with the matrix sequencer in Numerology, I had a modulation sequencer running Oki’s wavetable position knob all over the place. So I recorded about three minutes worth of playing the matrix “live.” This works really well for me with TonePad and other iPhone apps that I have, and it game me something useful here as well. I posted the five sequences I recorded. These are all recorded using the method described but with adjustments in the first five waves of the wavetable. About 1:15 into the song titled “Oki seq5” you can here the beginning of the loop that I ended up using in the final piece.

Once I had the main clip down I was able to add in some drums made out of bits of sampled electronic toys and various other bloopy beepy oddness, mostly cut and manipulated from these bits of recorded Oki.

When you watch the movie, you’ll hear a weird reversed-and-speeded-up bit as the puzzle is being taken apart. This is the main melody just reversed and, yeah, speeded up to about 180 bpm from 130 bpm. The kick drum and snare come from Audio Damage’s new Tattoo (not a good use of a terrific drum machine but still…), adding some frenetic banging. Then a few snare hits as I reposition the box, and a final little beep — originally an accident of the song looping back to the beginning at the end, but I liked it so I added it into the sequence.

I’m hoping to soon get something useful out of the modular. This weekend I’m planning a few hours with it so we’ll see what happens. Thanks for listening.

pretending a modular

I’m finding that I am really interested in modular synths, especially the idea of driving them with step-sequencers. Sometimes using a traditional piano keyboard and editing midi is no fun. When I troll the user library on the Reaktor site, I download all the oddball sequencers I can find. Inspired by this terrific video of The Subliminal Kid, I thought I’d just set up something in Reaktor and record the output.
This is the Monoliner sequencer running a patch in Carbon. The drums are a simple set-up in SineBeats. I mixed them together with a little mixer and recorded it in RecorderBox. It was more than five minutes long so I edited a bit in Ableton and added a little BeatRepeat in the middle part.

I have books on deadline, but I’d spend an entire week doing this if I could.